Warning: Violence, May be Controversial


butcherknifeI murder people often.

I write suspense and therefore my books contain killing. And sometimes, I get scolded by readers for too much killing. Too much violence.

Honestly, this bothers me.

It doesn’t bother me so much that the reader points it out, I’d expect nothing less. It bothers me that they’re offended, because I take great pains to not go overboard in describing murder and death.

It’s a fine line to walk and for Christian authors and often a controversial one.

First, let me explain my view of how I handle violence in fiction and then I want to talk about a couple other views that are out there.

One, all death should serve a purpose. I know that sounds really cold but remember folks, this is fiction. I’m telling a story, setting the stage, developing characters for you to love, hate, empathize with, whatever. Everything should serve a purpose, including the killing.

Two, my opinion is that murder and death should only be described with enough detail that the reader gets the idea and can understand what’s going on. A popular mantra in fiction writing is to “show, don’t tell.” But with violence (like with horror) often times what’s not shown is just as effective, if not more effective, than what is shown. I want to describe the scene enough so the reader understands the gravity of the situation, the brutality, the evil, but not describe it in such detail that it turns off the reader. Violence should never be described in such a way that it detracts from the story as a whole. We’re not out to shock readers, just move them.

Three, I need to be careful when I write scenes with violence. As an author I act out that scene in my head as I’m writing it. That means I’m going places in my mind that make me uncomfortable and are potentially dangerous. I need to practice caution and not dwell too deeply on the evil involved with most violence.

Now, time to get myself in hot water . . .

There are two arguments out there I hear most often in favor of showing violence in all its bloody and gory detail that I’d like to address. But first, a disclaimer: what follows is my opinion and my position. I may be wrong, I may be right. It’s my opinion. I don’t intend to belittle anyone or point any fingers. And I’m ready for comments and positions against my opinion.

The first argument is that readers need to be shown evil in all its ugly glory so they will know the extent to which evil can destroy and maim and disfigure. My response is that people know evil is out there, they saw what happened on 9/11. They’ve seen or at least heard about the terrorist beheadings, serial killers, mothers who drown their children, husbands who beat their wives senseless, the holocaust, the tortures, the experiments, abortion. They’ve seen it in movies, video games, on the news. We’ve been that desensitized as a culture. And besides, if that’s the argument then why stop at murder and such, why not include rape? Incest? Other sexual crimes? Isn’t that showing the reader how depraved evil really is as well?

The next argument is that it’s okay to describe violence in gratuitous detail because the Bible has many acts of violence in it. In my opinion, this argument is bunk. Yes, the Bible contains violence. Murder, dismemberment, rape, warring, looting, and much more. But it doesn’t describe the details. It handles it properly, giving the reader enough information to understand what has transpired but not too much.

English: Jael Smote Sisera, and Slew Him, circ...

English: Jael Smote Sisera, and Slew Him, circa 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or follower, gouache on board, 5 7/16 x 7 3/8 in. (13.9 x 18.8 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, in Judges 4, Jael drives a stake through Sisera’s head while he’s sleeping, nailing his skull to the ground. The Bible describes it this way: But Heber’s wife Jael picked up a tent stake and a hammer. She went quietly over to Sisera. He was lying there, fast asleep. He was very tired. She drove the stake through his head right into the ground. So he died. So what do you think? Is that gratuitous? I don’t think so. There’s no description of the sound of the stake puncturing his skull; no description of blood and brain matter, of the spasms his body no doubt underwent. His last gasp for air. It’s handled very modestly.

Here’s another example. In 2 Kings 9 Jezebel is murdered. This one is gruesome even by biblical standards. It’s described this way: When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it, and she painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out the window. As Jehu entered the gate, she said, “Is it well, Zimri, your master’s murderer?” Then he lifted up his face to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” And two or three officials looked down at him. He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down, and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall and on the horses, and he trampled her under foot. When he came in, he ate and drank; and he said, “See now to this cursed woman and bury her, for she is a king’s daughter.” They went to bury her, but they found nothing more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. Therefore they returned and told him. And he said, “This is the word of the Lord, which He spoke by His servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘In the property of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; and the corpse of Jezebel will be as dung on the face of the field in the property of Jezreel, so they cannot say, “This is Jezebel.” Here we have some blood, a woman being trampled. But oddly there’s no description of what was left of her other than it being the skull, hands, and feet. No description of her body hitting the ground, her screams, the sound of bones breaking as she is trampled. No description of dogs eating her entrails and so on. It’s all handled very discreetly.

The Bible is known for giving an accurate, unabashed play-by-play of events as they unfolded, but it rarely offers color commentary describing what happened.

So how much description is too much or how little is not enough? Well, that’s the million dollar question isn’t it?

So, there you have it. Let the comments begin. Agree with me, make your own arguments, state your own opinions. I’m not saying I do it right all the time in my own writing. Sometimes I go back and read through one of my books and wish I hadn’t described things or acts or people in certain ways. There’s always regrets and second-guessing. But we learn and hopefully we put what we learn into practice.

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About mikedellosso

Mike Dellosso is an author of wide-eyed suspense. He writes stories that not only entertain but enlighten.

Posted on June 6, 2013, in Christian Fiction, Writing craft and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Thanks Mike. I don’t find your violence offensive because it reflects the reality of this world. Jesus tells us that worldly desires will lead to violence and other sins. Violence is born of selfishness, and we’re all guilty of selfishness, even believers. So thanks for keeping it real, without sensationalizing.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more, and I think you find the right balance in your books when it comes to describing or discussing murders and crime.

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  3. Very insightful post, and an issue that I have thought about often as well concerning my writing.

    In the first book of my Christian/Satanic trilogy, I wanted to set the tone for the grim world the story inhabited and I threw a handful of darts at the violence dartboard. Public executions, immolation, headshots, the works. One particular scene that I felt a little bit guilty about (but still kept in the book) described a Satanic priest and priestesses being crucified against a giant wooden pentagram. For clarification, they were murdered by a demonic entity whose intention was to shock and horrify (which the demon achieved with resounding success) but I did feel that I had stepped into gratuity with that one. In the subsequent book, I toned it down a bit (though just a little) and tried to use violence with more discretion and poignancy. Then, to give my mind a break from all the blood spatter, I wrote a contemporary novel without a single instance of violence. It was cleansing and relaxing, but I strangely felt the itch to kill again (semantically speaking). I guess once you get a taste for blood, it’s hard to lose it…

    I do believe that the violence in my books serves various purposes and isn’t thrown in just to give the reader a jolt (though the style and severity of the violence might push boundaries) but it is easy as a writer to get caught up in the thrill of the kill. Murder is an abhorrent sin and should never be glorified. My books feature a heavy amount of occult and Satanic elements, but they are always recognized as evil, and I think the same goes for violence. I feel that it’s find to pack a book with violence from cover to cover as long as the violence isn’t reveled in or glorified. Of course, a book like that would be a bit exhausting too (check out Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series…I’ve never encountered wholesale slaughter of such magnitude before or since).

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    • Thanks for your point-of-view, Mark. The violence must always serve a purpose. After that, it’s really up to the author to determine how much is enough and what to include and what to imply. Tough stuff, nonetheless.

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  4. Dear Mike, I didn’t have the opportunity to read many of your books but I’ve read “Scream” and “Frantic” and two short novels. I really liked them and I am looking for reading your other books. They are stories with really good deep lessons. And I think you have a very good balance. As you’ve said you write suspense and thrillers therefore your books contain killing. Like with everything: there are different strokes for different folks and you will NEVER please everybody. And those other people can look for other authors that will please them. I know that you welcome constructive criticism and it’s wonderful. It’s great that we are all different and that we can learn from each other. We grow and change. But there are situations like in the proverb about The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey (http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_aesop_man_boy_donkey.htm). Thanks for writing. God bless you!

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    • Thanks, Beata. Glad you’re enjoying the stories. I’m a people-pleaser by nature so I try to find a happy balance but you’re right, I will never please everyone and truly, I’m okay with that.

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  5. I don’t get people getting offended in a book. You can turn on the TV 24/7 and see worse violence being committed. Problem with TV is it’s either news or a reenactment of a real crime. I’d rather read it in a fiction book than know that someone really went through that!!! BTW, I never received my book I won. I know you said you didn’t even have them at the time of contest so was hoping that was still the reason.

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  6. Linda Dindzans

    Very thought provoking post, Mike.
    The primary example of violence in the Bible is the crucifixion. Again, it is handled in a very understated way. One could make the argument that more detail would emphasize Christ’s sacrifice for us.Mel Gibson did that with his movie The Passion of the Christ. I believe that many do not fully comprehend His physical suffering,yet God chose to leave out the details. As you pointed out, the world knows about mayhem from other sources just as the immediate readers of the Gospels knew about crucifixion.
    Balance is important in everything. If a book is packed with violence even if presented as evil or Satanic, then the reader is focusing on violence,perhaps reveling in it. This could feed an obsession with it. The TV series Dexter comes to mind. I watched one episode. The protagonist is a detective investigating serial killers. He begins to exact vigilante justice and becomes a serial killer himself. As authors we often have a more vivid imagination than some of our readers and we don’t want to provide” instruction” for evil thoughts or actions. As you pointed out Mike, the author could also become ensnared, so each scene of violence or sin of any kind needs to be approached prayerfully. A trusted “accountability reader” who can give feedback on the specific issues you have raised may be a good idea. At the end of the day, no one can please everyone. We each will stand before Christ and give an account for our own actions even though our mistakes have already been forgiven. God knows our hearts.

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    • You’re absolutely right, Linda. God didn’t need to expound on the horrors of the crucifixion because the readership of the time would have been well-accustomed to seeing it in all its ugliness and brutality. The challenge is to give the reader enough but not too much.

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  7. I’ve always been a big murder mystery fan, and I feel like I can handle a little blood splatter here and there. Sometimes it makes me squirm uncomfortably, like in Steven James’ “Opening Moves”, but it does serve a purpose. Other violent actions though, such as rape, are usually just too much and should be very carefully written. Maybe that’s because murder is usually a theoretical event, but most of us know someone who has been sexually assaulted in some way. There’s a scene in James Patterson’s “Kiss the Girls” that I cannot get out of my head, even after 10 years, and it disturbs me as much now as it did when I read it. The big reason I switched to Christian fiction is that violence is part of the story to illustrate evil, and that is to show the Light shining brightly in the darkness. In secular fiction, the evil is only for the sake of evil. I so appreciate authors such as yourself and others who do not shy away from some of the gritty details, but who handle it with integrity. I don’t think I could handle having my only option be Christian historical Amish romances.

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    • Jenn, you are correct that violence (evil) is a great tool to show just how bright the Light can shine in this dark world. It offers a perfect contrast to the hope and love that is found in Christ.

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  8. Interesting thoughts. I guess our main objective should be, “lead us not into temptation.” And very few readers would be tempted to murder. Would they? Maybe they would! Billy Graham’s wife even joked, “Divorce, never. Murder, maybe.” They say we’re all capable of it. So, yes, while we must make our characters interesting, we do have to consider the reader. I think about the Garden of Eden and how Adam and Eve were forbidden to touch the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And how on Philippians we’re admonished to think on things that are lovely and pure. Images stick in our minds, for good or for bad.

    That said, I have several murders in my wip. And some voodoo. I, who often warn people about sorcery in our books and movies and how God hates it, (Galatians 5, Deuteronomy 28 or 18? have my character dabbling in it for some answers she needs. But I have her suffer for it, w/ headaches and panic attacks. And later, she renounces it and repents and receives forgiveness.

    I just have to be very sure I don’t make it attractive enough to tempt anyone to try it. That really concerns me. If anyone thinks it’s not to worry about, I just posted on FB about a book by the head of a foreign mission board who saw demon possession and Holy Spirit healings on the mission field. The book is _Spiritual Warfare–The Battle for God’s Glory_. We’re all in the thick of it, whether we know it or not.

    We just want our books on the right side of the battle.

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    • Margo, you bring up a good point concerning the responsibility we have toward our readers. As storytellers we lead them as one leads a horse with a rope and bridle. We must be careful about where we lead them and how long we spend there. Interesting thought!

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  9. Mike,
    I could not disagree more. When I first discovered you as an author, I was looking for Kindle books and happened across Scream, I was expecting a lot more detail, based on the title and cover. I was completely ignorant to the genre I had just chosen to read. Once I finished, I had to have all your books. I went through Darlington Woods and The Hunted in no time. I read Rearview, but then took a little break since I only had Darkness Follows and Frantic left. I have to be honest, did not think I would enjoy Darkness Follows, the whole Civil War, Gettysburg storyline was just not my cup of tea, but once I started, I had to know what he did that he kept coming back to the words “You did what you had to do, son.” Since that one is most fresh in my mind, I don’t know how anyone can say you go into too much detail with the killings. We live in a world where I can turn on the news and get more detail as to how someone has just been killed. I’m not exactly a person with an abundance of faith, I look around and see how most people treat others on a daily basis, turn on the news to see how this country wants to destroy that one. Even though you technically write Christian Fiction, after I’m finished with one of your books, I always have a sense of hope that maybe, just maybe, things can change. I still have Frantic to read and I just purchased Fearless, but please, keep them coming.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Heather. That sense of hope is what I’m going for and I believe one of the biggest attributes that should separate Christian fiction from other fiction. It has a higher purpose, a higher calling.

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  10. why anyone who is offended by such would even pick up a horror novel, christian or secular is beyond me. If youre a flowers, sunshine and smiles kind of folk then read that stuff and stay away from horror. Dont read it and complain! I dont get it, I think some folks thrive on what they call righteous criticism or whatever….its really seems they thrive on correcting everyone around them in such an obsessive negative way. Go suck some sunshine and move on LOL.

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  11. I really love to read murder mysteries and find that a Christian author always has hope and peace in their books. I would not read murder/suspense books from non-Christian authors because it just seems dark and depressing, but with your stories Mike I always find the hope and peace. Thanks for your books! Love Fearless!

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